Postal Reading group
June 2023
Notes on the book Entry island by Peter May

At a first glance, I thought that Peter May’s Entry island was just another crime thriller, but, while that is a significant part of the book, there is a second storyline set in the Outer Hebrides on the Isle of Lewis. It is this second story which threatens to overwhelm Sime, the sleep deprived detective who is convinced that he knows the prime suspect.

The first story is a fairly straightforward ‘police procedural’ set on Entry Island, one of the Magdalen islands and part of the Canadian province of Quebec. James Cowell has been found murdered, and his wife Kirsty is the prime suspect, as she is covered in her husband’s blood. However, while the police seem convinced of her guilt, she protests her innocence claiming that she was attacked by a masked intruder. At the same time, Sime, one of the investigating detectives who is suffering chronic insomnia following the break-up of his marriage is convinced that he knows Kirsty. During brief moments of sleep he is tormented by vivid dreams of a crofting community on the Isle of Lewis, a forced eviction during the highland clearances and an unlikely romance. Sime must seek to understand the meaning of these dreams and how they influence the murder case on entry island.

The mix of the two storylines, and genres, in this case crime and historical fiction, is a technique which seems to be increasing in popularity as a way of broadening the appeal of a book, or making it stand out. The risk, of course, is that in attempting to tell two stories, the book fails to do either well. In this case, Peter May has a good reputation and is quite clearly capable of some very good writing. However, although the two storylines do link up, the connections seem rather contrived, while the split format with the Hebridean story being introduced during Sime's dreams does seem to break up the narrative while seeming intrusive to those wanting to follow the murder investigation.

While I do generally enjoy crime fiction, particularly those with a well constructed plot, I found the storyline here to be rather weak. From the beginning, the investigation was clearly focussed on Kirsty, and any other possibilities were quickly ruled out. Whilst I acknowledge some of the evidence against her, the police were clearly convinced of her guilt and didn’t seriously persue any other possible suspects, even when Sime himself is attacked. Similarly, without finding the murder weapon, I would have thought that it would have been difficult to make a case against Kirsty. By the standards of the best police procedurals, this aspect of the storyline is weak, and many strands seem to add very little, for example the disappearance of Robert. There was clearly a connection here: he wasn’t the killer, but did he know something of Kirsty’s past? By the end of the book the reader is none the wiser.

Despite the above criticism of the modern day crime aspect of the story, the standard of May’s writing is good, and conveys a strong sense of place. This helps to bring out the historical aspect of the story, and leaves the reader with a real impression of the Isle of Lewis. As with the modern day story, the plot is perhaps a little weak, but it is nevertheless adequate, allowing the book to convey the precarious nature of crofting communities, the hardship caused by the potato famine and the horrific injustice of the Highland clearances. The romance with the Laird’s daughter is rather less convincing, and I think the reader instinctively knows that it didn’t end well.

The main problem, however, is the link between the two stories which is rather contrived, and also entirely predictable. I had certainly guessed the historical link between Sime and Kirsty at an early stage. The motive for Kirsty’s attempted murder is likewise tenuous, relying, as it does, on some knowledge of Kirsty’s inheritance; another facet which the police investigation didn’t explore. While I hadn't guessed at the real identity of the attacker, I had a sense that Sime was tempting him out into the open by revisiting Entry Island, a possibility which, curiously, only occured to Sime when it was almost too late.

In conclusion, there are two real stories here: the modern day murder investigation, and the historical romance set on the Isle of Lewis. Both stories are a little weak, although entirely adequate, but the connection between the two seems to be as contrived as it is predictable. Equally the split time format inturrupts the flow to the murder investigation for those readers concentrating on that aspect. May’s writing is good, and conveys a real sense of place, but there seems to be agreement that this is not this best work. By contrast his writing is capable of giving his readers a real feel for the Hebrides. With that in mind, the Lewis trilogy is often mentioned as a better example of his writing.

Comments by Nicholas Cutler